Toronto Wolfpack are sporting pioneers about to launch themselves unconventionally into the third tier of English Rugby League this week.
The Canadian club isn’t the first from abroad to play regular matches in England with French clubs Catalan Dragons and Toulouse Olympique playing in Super League and The Championship respectively. We also have Russian clubs playing in the challenge cup, a knockout rugby league cup competition but The Wolfpack will be in England for prolong periods whilst RC Lokomotiv Moscow tend to be in Europe for one or two matches at most.
What makes Toronto Wolfpack pioneering is being the first true Transatlantic sports team, something that American Football hasn’t been able to manage despite having more resources, backing and money than Rugby League will ever have as a sporting collective. National Football League games are played to sell-out crowds at Wembley Stadium every year in England but American Football will never grow beyond exhibition matches and amateur leagues over here because it won’t ever able to compete with rugby union, football (soccer for Americans) or even rugby league.
Sports more established in England have an historic monopoly on all the best up and coming athletes, likewise with American football over in the states. Babies are born into sports obsessed families and grow up to be involved with whatever is prominent in their area on both sides of the Atlantic. I was always going to be a Leeds Rhinos or Leeds United fan because I had little choice and I’m sure this is the case for sports fans world over with their local clubs. It is always hard for a new sport to break into another area where other sports have been established for generations.
Rugby league is never going to overtake rugby union as the number one code of rugby in England because rugby league started off as a small handful of clubs breaking away from rugby union to start their own sport. However, rugby league is the national game in Papua New Guinea and the most popular code of rugby in Australia where rugby union doesn’t have an historical stronghold. American football on the other hand is as niche as Australian rules football in the sporting globe and both will never establish themselves worldwide in the way both codes of rugby or football (soccer) have done.
The Wolfpack have potentially started a domino effect with a Florida consortium preparing a bid into the English leagues which has led to one rugby league journalist, Steve Mascord, dare to dream of a Super League in 10 years with three North American franchises. I think this idea is ludicrous, unsustainable and just won’t happen because rugby league in England just doesn’t have the finance to keep this innovation running in the long run. North American clubs cannot revitalise an English league that is getting by at best, and eternally struggling at worse.
There’s a big financial difference for English clubs flying to France for a game a year and flying to North America season after season. Toronto have got sponsorship to fly themselves plus other English based teams between Canada and England throughout this season. Will sponsorship still be here in ten years when speculation is replaced by reality?
I think Toronto Wolfpack along with the Florida club, if it gets off the ground could be a short-term revelation in England but the medium to long-term plan must be establishing and growing the sport back in North America. In three years, I would love to see an all-star Toronto Wolfpack side featuring the best rugby players in the world conquering Super League. Abolish the salary cap for this team so fans in the UK could watch this generation’s greatest play here on a regular basis for a season or two.
We need the game’s biggest personalities alongside passionate Torontonians giving the European rugby league community the best party it’s had in a while where for a few years we are making magic happen over here and Canada before we must get realistic again and run things at a sustainable level. Sport is one of the last bastions of social mobility for people from underprivileged backgrounds and this is how we need to sell rugby league in North America. It would be best coming from the voice of someone who’s worked themselves from rags to riches through sheer athletic ability.
Now here is something to wrap your mind around, American football will either be sanitised beyond all recognition or banned altogether by end of this century. The American sport is so violent that it leaves many former players with unaffordable medical bills long after their careers have ended. From the NFL, right down to college level, people in great numbers have been left with life changing injuries and it simply isn’t financially viable for insurance companies to provide affordable protection for everyone.
Participation numbers at youth level were on the decline for American football until the National Football League paid a company that connects big adult brands to youth, Brandissimo, to cynically get kids hooked on the great American sporting pastime from a young age through multi-market means. Parents did not want their kids playing football because of the damage it could do for them but those rational thoughts have been drowned out by salesmen with ulterior motives to get as many kids involved as possible from the youngest possible age.
In his brilliant piece on the Huffington Post which is well worth the read, George Dohrmann covers how Brandissimo have got kids as young as six picking a team of NFL players each week and compete for the most fantasy points with other kids across the country to win extraordinary prizes. The infiltration of the school system has even produced a football-themed animated television show that aired on NickToons and is currently executing a multi-dimensional plan to convince concerned moms to let their kids play. This is the last throw of the dice for a sporting enterprise that does more harm than good.
I think Rugby league could eventually replace American football when the most profitable sporting enterprise in the world with twelve billion in revenue in 2015 is either banned or forced to be sanitised by law. Rugby league can be an exciting spectacle to watch even if it would be a step down from the violence that plagues and drives American football. By nature, fewer people get serious injuries by playing Rugby league than in American football, so this would be the moral argument to win over parents wanting to get their kids involved in a much safer sport.
In an ideal world, I wish we didn’t have to put people from underprivileged backgrounds into contact sports to earn a living but the capitalist system would impoverish us even further if this industry was banned for our own safety. Billionaires by their very nature want to be popular so they will invest in sports that exploit those from a poor background for both financial and vanity reasons. A lot of people would love to own the biggest sports club in the world so they could get the best Instagram photos. Getting wealthy people to invest in our product is what we need to be building towards so more people from our own backgrounds can earn a better living than they usual would at an entry level nine-till-five job. Most of the 1% would have athletes working for poor wages if they could get away with it just to add more money to their bottom line.
Still we live in a democracy and with the right strategy Rugby league could be the biggest sport in North America within a few generations.
Credits: unsplash.com for the photos, George Dohrmann and Steve Mascord for content inspiration.